The tragedy in Bihar, where 23 children died last week from contamination in a school lunch, serves as a grim reminder of the widening gap between what governments promise the poor and what they actually deliver.

The tragedy should have served as a moment of introspection for policymakers. Unfortunately, the political blame game triggered by the tragedy has only served to deflect attention from the deeper questions the incident raises on the mid-day meal programme, on India’s educational crisis and on the wider rot in governance the country faces.

The avoidable deaths in Bihar may be the starkest example of a dysfunctional programme but reports about the inefficiencies of the mid-day meal programme have been pouring in from all parts of the country ever since it was made universal. Last week, more than a hundred children fell ill after eating a meal in Tamil Nadu, a state which is known for its superior delivery of public services and which originated the idea of mid-day school meals in India.

After experimenting with various child nutrition schemes since before independence, Tamil Nadu launched the universal mid-day meal programme in 1982, helping raise enrolment rates initially. The universalization of the mid-day school meal in India, after a 2001 Supreme Court directive to that effect, was inspired by this state’s example. The scheme became a key component of government-led efforts to universalize education.

The expansion of the scheme rested on three key assumptions: one, that a large section of the poor cannot afford to eat two square meals a day and, hence, extra food will be the key to get children in such families to school; second, that public school systems in all Indian states will be at least as capable as Tamil Nadu in providing nutritious school meals; and third, that a healthy schooling environment will emerge once the basic need of food has been taken care of.

Even after a decade of wasting precious public resources, and the deaths and illnesses of countless children, India is yet to acknowledge the folly of such assumptions. Unlike the India of 1982 when 15% of households reported not being able to afford even two square meals a day, in the India of 2009-10, barely 1% reported that going by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data. Further, given the widely varying administrative capacities of states, very few are able to provide wholesome and safe food to schoolchildren. School meals may, therefore, play very little role in driving children to school. The rise in enrolment rates over the past decade may have more to do with the fact that schools and toilets were built in those parts where they never existed than with the universalization of the mid-day meal scheme. Studies show that even in Tamil Nadu, the impact of the scheme may be much lower than what was originally supposed.

Underlying the drive to universalize the mid-day meal lay the specious idea that raising enrolment rates is the key to improving learning outcomes. Large-scale surveys conducted by the non-governmental organization, Pratham, show the reading, writing and arithmetic skills of children have dropped sharply in the past few years even as enrolment rates have gone up.

India’s educational policies were designed with the noble intention of promoting learning levels but since they measured enrolment rates only, success was achieved only on that score. Although policymakers pay lip service to measuring outcomes, India continues to focus largely on inputs when it comes to designing public schemes.

The persistent tendency of the ruling government to create unenforceable entitlements lies at the root of the enormous social waste in the education sector. Both the mid-day meal scheme and the Right to Education Act 2005 promise the moon but fail to account for the limited administrative capabilities of states and the perverse incentives such entitlements generate along the chain of delivery.

Recognizing the current mess in public education will be the first step in solving it. The solution must involve greater freedom for states to decide how they want to improve learning outcomes. If at all incentives are required to boost enrolment rates, it may make more sense for a state such as Bihar to provide conditional cash transfers rather than invest in the huge apparatus of cooks and monitors, needed to run a mid-day meal scheme. Such an approach will also allow experimentation to devise the best possible solutions to overcome the learning crisis. The Union government must step back from launching and micro-managing grand schemes and instead focus on monitoring outcomes.

It should not take a Pratham report to realize that a decade’s effort in putting more children in schools has been wasted. It must not take the deaths of children to realize how the mid-day meal scheme has gone wrong horribly.

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